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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Exemplary Narratives / novelas ejemplares

It's a snow day so I will be blogging from home all day long. I can't go anywhere and won't risk it. My car is stuck so I would be wading through 8 inches of snow and counting.


In theory class yesterday I made a comparison that I don't know is valid, but one that seemed suggestive to me at the time, and still does the next morning. In his article "Theory Choice," a defense of his book TSOSR, Thomas Kuhn points out that famous experiments like Foucault's pendulum have an exemplary status in science pedagogy that they don't necessarily have in scientific discovery or justification. They are taught to students because of their clarity and elegance, but the real history of science is much more messy.

I compared those kind of experiments to the famous stories of literary history, like Rubén Darío's visits to Spain, where he brought modernismo there, or Boscán's suggestion to Garcilaso that they experiment with Italian meters--or Kant's missing his walk after reading Hume, in another context. These are pedagogically striking stories, easy to memorialize and understand. I'm not suggesting that they are false or overly misleading, just that literary history does not develop (mostly) through such memorable episodes. What is misleading is the status given them. They stand out precisely because they are good stories, where messier accounts wouldn't.

Other examples:

The generation of 98 reacting to the Spanish-American war.

Cervantes inventing the modern novel.

Huidobro's visit to Spain bringing the avant-garde with him.

Langston Hughes leaving some poems for Vachel Linsday at a restaurant.

Any story of the "discovery" of hollywood star in a drug store.

Whitman sending his poems to Emerson.

Frank O'Hara meeting Ashbery at Harvard.

Rimbaud running away from home and joining the commune.

Pound editing the Waste Land and offering suggestion for Yeats' poetry to make it more modern.

Since we are in literature, we like these anecdotes because they are really good stories, like those invented by a skillful novelist. It is literary history, history made into a genre of literature.

Maybe I shouldn't even be that suspicious of them. Maybe it does take these striking moments of interruption of the norm to make a literary revolution. So I'm resisting what might be an insight of mine because it reminds me too much of that Marxist voice in the back of my head that says that we are exaggerating the importance of these "exceptional" moments. So I'll present those two perspectives and leave it there.


Vance Maverick said...

Have you read any David Markson? He has whole books made up mainly of such anecdotes. (Vanishing Point is one.) He writes well, in a concise polished way, and organizes them with a certain confident surprise, but the effect is to make you doubt every one, both veracity and significance. I'm not sure it's intended. (Davenport may have done something similar.)

Maybe Bruckner never really tipped Hans Richter either!

Jonathan said...

Don't know Markson. Or story about Bruckner.

Vance Maverick said...

The Bruckner story is used to illustrate his ingenuousness, attributed (depending on the teller) to peasant upbringing or psychological problems, or both. After the successful premiere of the Fourth Symphony, conducted by Richter, Bruckner was so pleased he gave the great conductor a tip -- a coin in the version I remember, which Richter kept ever thereafter.

No special recommendation of Markson. Antin is better at integrating high-culture-talk into literature of his own.